Things were supposed to improve for Toulouse when they dismissed Pascal Dupraz a few weeks ago but their struggles continued on Saturday with a 1-0 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. Despite putting in a spirited performance at the Stade Municipal against the league leaders, the outlook remains bleak. Even their two 1-0 victories were underwhelming – it is hard to take much solace from beating a Nice side torn apart by injury and a Troyes team who were forced to play nearly the entire match with 10 men – and their most striking result of recent weeks was the 2-0 defeat to Ligue 2 strugglers Bourg-en-Bresse that handed them an embarrassing elimination from the Coupe de France.
Dupraz’s fiery personality and skill as a motivator helped the team avoid relegation in 2016 but he has struggled to develop a talented group of players. Highly touted players such as Issa Diop, Alexis Blin, Yann Bodiger and Kelvin Amian are no further along than they were 18 months ago, having been stymied by inconsistent tactics and a lack of discipline. This charge cannot be levelled at the club’s teenage goalkeeper, Alban Lafont, who played a blinder on Saturday, but he seems to be the exception who proves the rule.
Toulouse have a massively talented group of young players but their baffling transfer strategy in recent windows has been driven by fear of relegation. Rather than following likes of Monaco and Lyon, who have complemented their impressive academy products with other youthful talents, Toulouse have chosen experience over potential and signed players whose best days seem to be behind them. The club has been paralysed into merely trying to avoid relegation, bringing in Jimmy Durmaz, Giannelli Imbula, Ola Toivonen, Yannick Cahuzac, Yaya Sanogo and more recently Max-Alain Gradel and Firmin Mubele.
Having lost Martin Braithwaite and Wissam Ben Yedder in successive summers, the team needed strikers, but instead they opted to sign experienced midfielders Imbula and Cahuzac, which only served to undercut the confidence of their young midfielders. Cahuzac has not been a regular starter for much of the season, but Imbula, reputedly the team’s highest earner, has featured in every league match save two since his late arrival from Stoke City. There is no doubting Imbula’s work ethic but his creativity and ability on the ball are sorely lacking – which puts him in in stark contrast to youth products Bodiger and Blin. Toulouse had been very pedestrian in midfield this season, with Blin (for whom injuries have admittedly been a concern) and Bodiger (who has often not even been in the matchday squad) not being afforded many opportunities.
Toulouse have been very poor in attack this season, with only Caen scoring fewer goals. Dupraz’s priority was to avoid conceding goals rather than score them and, unfortunately for Toulouse fans, his replacement, Mickaël Debève, has the same approach. Debève has set his teams out in an overwhelmingly negative fashion, failing to make good use of his most talented attacking players, Gradel in particular.
Gradel had the better of Dani Alves in the early exchanges on Saturday but a lack of balance in Toulouse’s 4-5-1 meant he was forced to switch flanks, where he was more easily minded by Yuri Berchiche. Signing Gradel seemed to be a desperate move by Toulouse but they would be in a dire position without his goals – six in 15 starts.
The composition of the defence has also been baffling. Save Diop and Lafont, Dupraz often opted for experience, picking Steeve Yago and Francois Moubandjé at full-back, thus limiting the opportunities of Amian and Clément Michelin. Both highly touted youth internationals for France, they, as well as Issiaga Sylla – who sparkled on loan with a poor Gazelec Ajaccio team two seasons ago – have not been encouraged to develop, even if Sylla looks to have taken advantage of a lengthy absence on the part of Moubandjé. Toulouse are clearly adept at bringing through talented youngsters but they are doing next to nothing to help these players and the results to date speak for themselves.
The general consensus was that Toulouse had done well to hold on to players such as Lafont and Diop this summer, but how much patience can these young players be expected to show while their own growth is suffering? The club sit one point above the relegation zone and need to sort things out quickly. If they do go down, they will only have themselves to blame for failing to capitalise on one of the more promising sets of prospects in France.
• Real Madrid have been looming over Paris since the draw was made for the last-16 stage of the Champions League. The French – and Spanish – media have become increasingly fixated on a tie that, considering the money spent in the summer, is one of the biggest in Paris Saint-Germain’s history. However, as their narrow 1-0 win in Toulouse shows, Paris Saint-Germain go into the game facing a few nagging questions. Dani Alves struggled with Max Gradel’s pace and, at 34, he coud easily be exposed by Gareth Bale; Thiago Motta’s likely absence leaves a gap at the base of the midfield that an unfit Lassana Diarra and a youthful Giovani Lo Celso may not be able to fill in such a crucial evening; while Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappé’s goalscoring has started to dry up, the pair accounting for just three of the team’s last 19 goals in Ligue 1. They have to hold their nerve on the big stage – Unai Emery’s future depends on it.
• Rudi García’s first game in charge of Marseille in October 2016 was a painfully boring if creditable 0-0 draw away at Paris Saint-Germain. For the following year Marseille struggled to develop in spectacle and flare while results have only hovered around the acceptable mark. This winter however, García’s side have blossomed into the cavalier, free-flowing outfit that the squad seemingly facilitated and their pugnacious fans insisted upon, while results have remained steady. The 2-2 draw with a newly stubborn St Étienne also underlines room for improvement but García, often criticised for failing to improve upon one-dimensional and individualistic displays, deserves credit for finally moulding his side into one of Ligue 1’s premier attractions, while a look back over his tenure shows a generally upward curve given the disarray he found them in. The “Champions Project” is not the laughing stock it once was, as the Vélodrome hopes to see the return of Champions League football.